Recreation and Sports in New Zealand

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New Zealanders are regarded as fitness and sports fanatics. Nearly 95 percent of all New Zealander play a sport, garden or walk for recreation and fitness. One in five enjoys fishing.

Bungy Jumping

Some New Zealanders claim that bungy jumping was invented in New Zealand. A more realistic claim is that it was first marketed there as a thrill sport.

In 1986, New Zealanders A.J. Hackett and Henry Van Asch started leaping off bridges with ropes made from hundreds of latex rubber strands developed at Auckland University. In 1988, they pioneered the concept of charging people money to leap from bridges near the New Zealand town of Queenstown with these latex ropes.

In truth, bungy jumping began in 1979 when members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club leaped from a bridge in Bristol, England with stretchy ropes similar to bungy chords. They were mimicking land divers from the Melanesian island of Vanuatu (also known as New Hebrides Island), who dived head first from bamboo towers with vines attached to their ankles during manhood initiation ceremonies. The Oxford version of the sport was featured on the ABC show “That's Incredible” with Cathy Lee Crosby and Fran Tarkenton.

Today, A.J. Hackett bungy jumping sites can be found in Australia, France and other countries. Hackett's operation at 140-foot-high Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown reportedly has a perfect safety record (Hackett himself has been involved in creating safety guidelines for the sport) but people have reportedly died bungy jumping at nearby 230-foot-high Skippers Bridge.

In New Zealand cities people bungy jump off hotels and office buildings. The new Te Papa museum in Wellington features virtual reality bungy jumping, complete with ropes tugging at your ankles at a coast of US$3.50.


New Zealand has highest rate of scuba diving deaths in the world.


The big sports in New Zealand are rugby, yachting, netball, touch rugby, field hockey, lawn bowls and cycling. Sheep shearing competitions and lumberjack sports are featured at many festivals.


The leading medal winners per capita in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were: 1) Tonga (1 for 105,600 people); 2) Australia (1 for 495,195 people); 3) New Zealand (1 for 567,879); 4) Trinidad (1 for 635,579); 5) Cuba (1 for 643,390); 6) Jamaica (1 for 643,572); 7) Belarus (1 for 695,827); and 8) Hungary (1 for 793,756). [Source: Newsweek]

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, New Zealand's Danyon Loader won two swimming gold medals (in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles).


Rugby Union (the kind of rugby with a scrum) is far and away the biggest spectator sport and participatory team sport in New Zealand. The national team, the All Blacks, is regarded as the best rugby team in the world; Kiwi children ruthlessly play the game in schools, fields and yards across the country; and every city and town has several club teams. New Zealand boasts 550 rugby clubs with 150,000 participants.

see UK SPORTS for rugby rules.

All Blacks

The All Blacks is the name of the New Zealand national rugby team. The name is derived from the their uniforms (the jersey and pants are all black). At the end of matches they win the All Blanks strip to their waists and perform a Maori challenge dance called the haka.

The All Blacks have been described by AFP as "the best and most entertaining rugby side in the world." The International Herald Tribune has called them "the greatest rugby team in the history of the universe."

The Rugby World Cup has been held three times. It was won by New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1991 and South Africa in 1995. The largest margin of victory in a World Cup competition was New Zealand 145 and Japan 17 in a 1995 match in South Africa. In that game Simone Culhabe scored 45 points (20 conversions and one try).

New Zealand was defeated by South Africa in overtime by a score of 15-12 in the finals of the 1995 World Cup held in Johannesburg.

Jonah Lomu and Other All Black Stars

Perhaps the most well-known New Zealand rugby player is Jonah Lomu, a 250-pounds, six-foot-four winger described by opposing players as an impossible-to-tackle freak. He was star at the age of 20 at the 1995 World Cup, where he scored numerous tries in big games with his lightning speed, immense strength and an ability to run through tacklers like they were made of butter.

Lomu was born in Tonga and is married to woman from South African. After the 1995 World Cup, a volcanic island that rose out of the sea near Tonga was named after him. In 1996, he underwent surgery for a rare kidney disease and was unable to recover his form after that. He didn't make the 1999 All Black World Cup team.

Other star All Blacks include fullback Christian Cullen, halfback Justin Marshall, halfback Andrew Mehrtens, Simone Culhabe and Dallas Seymor.


New Zealand is considered the home of the world's best sailors. It is said that many Kiwis learn to sail before they learn to walk and Auckland is often called the "City of Sails" because every second household either owns a sailboat or has someone who crews on someone else's boat.

America's Cup Yacht Race

The America's Cup is the oldest trophy in sports. It was held by United States for 132 years, from the time the first challenge race was held in 1851 until it was taken away by Australia in 1983.

In 1987, despite being the favorite and having superior boat and crew and a 37-1 record in the trials, New Zealand lost their chance to win the America's Cup when they lost their confidence after being accused of cheating by American skipper Dennis Conner, who beat the New Zealanders in the trials and went on to defeat the Australians in the finals of America's Cup.

Conner then took the unusual step of calling for rematch the next year in 1988 and beat New Zealand in the finals. Conner is probably better known in New Zealand than in the United States. His underhanded moves have earned him the nickname in New Zealand of "Dirty Dennis."

America's Cup in 1995

In 1995, Team New Zealand became only the second non-United States team to win the America's Cup's since the event was first held in 1851. The New Zealand yacht, “Black Magic I” won the event by sweeping all five races in the best of nine series off the coast of San Diego. None of the races were close.

The Kiwis lead every 18.5-mile race from start to finish and crossed the finish lines with winning margins that were embarrassing to the Americans. The opening race was won by 4 minutes and 14 seconds, the widest margin for a challenge since 1871. Even when they raced conservatively they won by four minutes. Kiwis called the race "Slaughter in the Water."

New Zealanders went bonkers over the 1995 America's Cup. The syndicate chief Peter Blake and skipper Russel Couts became national heros and up to 92 percent of the nation's viewing audience tuned in to watch the early morning broadcasts of the races on television. When the New Zealand crew arrived in Auckland they were welcomed by 400,000 people, more than half the city's population.

The America's Cup now rests in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron headquarters in Auckland. It will be defended in the year 2000.

Yachts in the America's Cup in 1995

The three United States syndicates that competed for the cup in 1995 spent US$55 million on their efforts and enlisted the likes of Boeing, Cray Research, Ford and Hewlitt-Packard.

The hull of “Young America”, the boat that competed against the New Zealand yacht in the finals, was designed and modified using super computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as a three-dimensional ocean simulator developed by the United States Navy.

“Black Magic”, the New Zealand yacht, was designed by American Doug Peterson, who designed the 1992 America's Cup winner but was dissed by Conner in 1995. The boat was modified based on surveys given the yacht's crew.

The New Zealanders built two identical boats. That way they could test sails, rudders, keels, and rigging configurations and determine how much faster or slower each change made their boat go. “Black Magic” proved to be astoundingly fast. Technical innovations that increased its speed included a flatter mainsail, a rounder headsail, a small spreader, and stiff masts almost directly above the keel.

To get a psychological edge, members of the “Black Magic” crew gathered at the Loaded Hog Pub in Auckland and told a few select people that their engineers had screwed up the design of the boat. They also called a paint supplier to say they needed paint to cover the team's 1992 boat. These ploys triggered widely-spread rumors that the “Black Magic” was a loser when in fact the opposite was true. [Source: Sports Illustrated]

Peter Blake, Syndicate Chief in the America's Cup in 1995

The 1995 America's Cup syndicate chief Peter Blake is regarded by many people as the most accomplished ocean-going yachtsman in the world. In addition to winning the 1995 America's Cup, he has competed on the Whitebread Round the World Race five times, winning every leg in 1989-90. In 1994, he broke the record for sailing around the globe nonstop. He performed the feat in a 92-foot catamaran in just under 75 days, knocking four days off the record.

Blake paid the US$75,000 America's Cup entry fee out of his own saving and raised a half million dollars from selling 100,000 pairs of lucky socks, inspired by Blake's habit of wearing red socks during important races. Practically everyone in New Zealand wore red socks: the Prime Minister, all the members of the All Black rugby team and the Auckland Symphony orchestra, the governor general. Even the governor general's dog and an elephant in the Auckland Zoo wore them.

Russel Couts, Skipper in the America's Cup in 1995

Blake's biggest competition for the most accomplished ocean-going yachtsman title is “Black Magic” skipper Russell Couts, a low-key and scatter-brained yachtsman who is infamous for missing flights, running red lights and missing turns in his car, and forgetting to fill out paperwork for races.

Cout's crew and competitors say his success is based on his understated leadership skills and his egalitarian management style. Describing him in action Julian Rubinstein wrote in Sports Illustrated: "Couts barked tacking commands and requested directional readings from the tactician, who knelt behind him. But the crew...seemed to operate on automatic, trimming the sails quickly, relaying the wind shifts and hiking high on the rails."

Veteran Australian skipper Peter Gilmour told Sports Illustrated, "He's already one of the greats. Russel has the incredible ability to focus on the water and when he's not competing to be so casual that he's almost vacant. But I think a lot of that is a facade. Russel plays the psychological game pretty hard."

After trouncing Conner in the America's Cup, Couts won all five match races in the Gold Cup circuit; defended his world championship tile in Croatia; and broke a 21-year record in 630-nautical-mile Sydney-to-Hobart Tasmania race. He won eight of the nine events he entered in 1996 and ended the year ranked Number 1 in the world.

An American yachtsman told Sports Illustrated, "In America, kids can choose whether they want to be Michael Jordan, Dan Marino or about 100 other athletes. In New Zealand you either want to be Russel Couts or a rugby player.

Dennis Conner and the 1995 America's Cup

“Young America”, was skippered by Conners who won the right to challenge using a different boat. Although he has won the America's Cup three times, Conners is regarded as a pudgy fundraiser more than a yachtsman these days. After “Young America” lost the first race to “Black Magic”, Conner's didn't even show up to test some new sails. Instead he played golf with executives from one his sponsors, Cadillac.

Even Americans seemed to prefer the Kiwis over Conners at the 1996 cup finals. One popular T-shirt read: DENNIS CONNER WAIVES THE RULES, BUT NEW ZEALAND RULES THE WAVES.

America's Cup in 2000

The America's Cup in 2000 will be staged in Hauraki Gulf just north of Auckland. It will begin with the Louis Vuitton Cup in which 16 syndicates from 10 countries (including five from the United States) will fight for the right to challenge New Zealand in the finals. The Louis Vuitton Cup will consists of three round robins, a semifinal and final staged between October 1999 and February 2000.

The America's Cup Defense Race, in which the best New Zealand boat, from a separate competition, will battle the winner of the syndicate race, will be staged between February and March 2000.


The great miler John Walker chalked up 128 sub-four-minute miles in his 20 year running career.

Sir Edmund Hillary

see Nepal

Mt. Everest

Sometimes referred to as the third pole, Mt. Everest was "discovered" in an office in 1852 by a Bengali clerk who exclaimed "I have discovered the highest mountain in the world" after tabulating data from different survey stations across northern India. Known to the Nepalese as Samgarmatha and the Tibetans as Qomolangma, the mountain was named by the British after Sir George Everest, the Surveyor General of India and the man in charge of mapping India between 1830 and 1843. Everest most likely never saw the mountain named after him. In his time it was named Peak XV.

Mt. Everest lies on the border of Tibet (China) and Nepal and the first attempts to climb it were mounted from the Tibetan side. English climber George Leigh Mallory, the first to man to try to reach the summit, scouted a route up in 1921 and made it to 22,900 feet on his first attempt that year. The next year seven porters died in another futile attempt, and the year following that he disappeared above 27,700 feet with a companion, only 1,328 feet short of the summit.

The Everest attempts made Mallory an international celebrity. He is the source of the famous "Because it's there" statement, which was made in Philadelphia the year before died when he was asked during a lecture why he climbs mountains. In 1999 his body was found on the slopes of Everest. Some people think he may have made it to the top and died on his way down.

After Mallory, other climbers tried to climb Everest from the Tibetan side but nobody attempted an assault from the Nepalese side because the country was closed until 1950.

Women in Sports

The New Zealand national women's rugby team, the Black Ferns, are world champions. They do a Haka-like Maori dance.

A woman was barred from playing on a university soccer team.

Horse Racing

Horse racing is pretty big in New Zealand. When the Melbourne Cup is held in Australia, almost all of New Zealand comes to a stop as people make bets and watch the races on television.

New Zealand has a proud tradition of breeding world class thoroughbreds such as Phar Lap, which dominated horse racing in the 1930s.

In 1904, a huge eight-year-old race horse from New Zealand named Moifa was aboard a ship that went down in a storm. Moifa managed to swim to an island and roamed free there for two weeks before being rescued. He was taken to England, where he won the Grand National Steeplechase against 25 other hoses by a winning margin of eight lengths.


New Zealand highlanders love their dogs, many of which were Scottish border collies. "Shepherds endlessly analyze family trees and personalities," Yva Momatiuk wrote in National Geographic. "The dogs run behind horses, ride in trailers, fly in small planes, compete in trials...Most of all they walk and herd animals which they do with amazing skill. They are taught to respond to voice and whistle commands, often from a great distance."♥

Whenever Peter Elworthy goes flying in his open cockpit 1939 Tiger Moth biplane his sheepdog Rikki sits in the open cockpit behind him.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, New Zealand Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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